Wind whistled through the mountain pass, casting a pile of dead leaves down into the valley. Far below the mountain peaks, a herd of goats grazed. Prized livestock, the animals had long grown accustomed to the presence of the great dragons who took up residence in Haven. The flock had at first been more of an experiment in commerce with the younger races, but after decades of breeding and trade, the dragons had grown fond of their only marketable export. The goats were maneuverable around the mountainsides. Their milk made the finest cheese and they did not require excessive care from the dragons who acted as shepherds.
The meat was good, too.
From his perch overlooking the valley, Toport saw the entire perimeter surrounding the flock. Over the last weeks, the dragons had lost a dozen of their prized goats. There had never been any blood or other traces from a predator. The goats left behind had not even been startled or distraught afterward. It left the dragons puzzled, but only Toport was inclined to address it with any measure of severity. Perhaps the shepherds were not worried about the handful of missing goats, but Toport would not stand idly by while something – or someone – so blatantly stole from his people.
So he stood upon the side of the mountain, coiled along a tall precipice. His immense form, golden scales shining in the sun’s rays, looked part of the mountain itself when dusk approached and the colors in the sky became brilliant red and orange. Perfectly still, one could mistake him for a mass of precious ore which jutted out along the cliff. His wings remained folded close against his back and a scowl cut around his draconic face. Fierce golden eyes watched the valley below.
Night descended upon the flock, further allowing the golden dragon to disappear into the side of the mountain. The dull glow of his eyes slitted as he narrowed his gaze. Movement caught his attention on the westernmost edge of the herd’s grazing field. Two small figures stole across the lush grass toward the serene flock. A low growl emanated from Toport’s maw. These were no fell beasts or sly predators. Of the younger races, only humans dwelt in these parts.
Humans dared to steal from the proud and mighty dragons of Haven.
The great golden dragon slowly spread his wings under the cover of darkness which blanketed the mountains. Biding his time, he watched the tiny human specks draw closer to the sleeping herd. On the other side of the pass, a single dragon, a squat grey beast who overlooked the flock, lay lazily near a cave entrance. She made no indication that she heard or noticed the figures closing in.
Toport waited still, as the figures prowled along the edge of the herd. Two goats then broke away from the others without a sound, following the humans and whatever treats they offered. As they entered the tree line on the edge of the pass, Toport launched gracefully into the air. His wings opened wide, golden scales glittering in the pale light from the moons. His sheer size blocked out much of the sky, stars disappearing into the inky blackness his form created. His keen eyes followed the thieves’ movements. They cut an uneven path through the woods, zigzagging around as if to leave a confusing trail. A derisive snort left Toport’s nostrils as he began his descent. The humans made for a wide opening in the trees on the northern edge of the thicket, where a river wound close to the trees. There, two boats rocked on a gentle current, tied together to a stump on the shore.
The humans led the goats to the water’s edge and Toport tucked his wings in close as he pointed his body down. The dragon plummeted with such speed that the wind whistled around him. The pair of humans paused next to their boats and looked around, but their eyes were not suited to seeing at night. They could not place the direction of the strange sound which gradually grew louder.
The earth suddenly shook with a crash like a thunderclap. Toport’s front legs landed in the river and sent huge waves of water cascading in every direction. The boats splintered from the force of his arrival. The goats and the two thieves screamed with terror, but only the goats had the presence of mind to bolt back into the woods toward the rest of the herd. Toport snarled as he lowered his frightening face closer to the cloaked figures. Around him, the air crackled with energy. The river began to bubble and steam. Toport’s powerful magic reacted to his anger, but he kept it in check. He only wanted to paralyze them with fear.
Again, the humans screamed. Their feminine voices were high and sharp, but they fell and clutched one another, rather than flee into the night. Toport leaned his broad snout closer. His fangs alone were larger than either one of them.
“What right have you,” he growled, low and dangerous, “to steal from my flock?” He lifted one clawed hand from the river and slammed it on the ground next to the humans. The gesture only made them scream again. “Answer me!” he bellowed.
The humans wept, so great was their terror. The figure closest to him eventually looked up, quivering. The young woman held the other tightly.
“F-forgive us, great dragon!” she pleaded. Her voice was weak and strained, as if speaking required every ounce of concentration and effort. “We-we meant no insult!”
“Insult?” Toport sneered. His deep growl shook the ground. “Your transgression goes beyond insult, humans.”
The other figure was somewhat smaller than the first. Blonde curls poked out of her hood as she stared up at Toport, stricken. Her young voice was laden with fear and desperation.
“P-please don’t eat us!” she called up to him. Toport curled his lip. These females were only whelps, barely into adulthood. The younger one might not have even been that. “We didn’t know we were stealing from you!”
The crackling in the air subsided and the boiling river grew quiet. Toport’s glare, however, remained severe. “You have stolen fourteen of my goats,” he growled. “You will explain yourselves if you do not wish for me to end your pitifully short lives for this continued audacity.”
The first woman cradled the younger one, her face turned up to the dragon. The light from the dual moons made the tear-streaks glisten on her cheeks. She was a comely little human with hazel eyes and reddish hair. Her long locks lay fully visible after her hood had fallen back from the tumult of the dragon’s abrupt appearance.
“I…I am Stranelle,” she began in a wavering voice. “My sister, Sinelia.” Her arms tightened around the younger girl. “W-we discovered your flock some weeks ago, but we…we did not know it was yours. W-we thought the dragons we saw only came to prey on someone else’s livestock.”
Toport snarled again. “A thief is a thief,” he said. “A deliberate thief lacks all honor.”
“We had to!” little Sinelia argued. Toport’s golden eyes narrowed on the younger girl, but she did not recognize the warning in the darkness. “The wyverns would have eaten us already!”
Stranelle cringed and drew her sister closer when Toport reared his head up with a snort of disdain. He bared his fangs and even their human eyes discerned the razor-sharp threat they presented.
“There are no wyverns so close to my lair,” he countered. Both women immediately protested the claim.
“They’ve taken up the old temple!” Stranelle insisted. “The one by…by the ruins of the elven city. There are hundreds of them there now. They have pillaged most of the villages north.”
Toport considered Stranelle’s desperate, earnest face. He studied them both closely as they cowered before him. If they spoke the truth, then these wyverns needed to be eradicated. Wyverns were no real threat in small numbers, but a whole nest of hundreds of them could spell disaster for Haven and any other home to sentients on this half of the continent. The elven ruins were only two days’ flight to the north. The clever little beasts must have been well aware of Haven’s proximity. If wyverns did indeed lair there in such numbers, it most likely meant that they intended to attack Haven collectively to plunder the riches of the dragon home. Terrorizing humans in the meantime would sate their impressive appetite for riches and food and allow them to prepare for such an incursion.
“What have you done with my animals, then?” Toport demanded. He was certain the goats already taken away had met a swift and bloody end, if these wyverns were real.
Stranelle shivered at his cold tone. “W-we gave them to the wyverns,” she replied reluctantly. “They…they come twice a week to the villages and demand our food in return for our lives.”
Toport’s body rumbled with his growl. His claws flexed in the river. The great dragon General itched for a fight and the behavior this young woman described matched what he knew of wyverns. The beasts would continue to plunder the villages to the north until the humans could offer no more food, lest they starve. And then they would begin to take the villagers instead.
The dragon’s voice lowered, but it did not lose its dangerous edge. “You will take me to your village.” His tone did not allow room for argument and the two humans made no effort to do so. “I will test the veracity of your claims. If you prove truthful, I will overlook the insult you have afforded me and my kin.”
The young women gathered their wits about them and pointed the way to their village. Toport plucked them from the riverside with massive talons and leapt into the air, ignoring their panicked screams. The flight north took the rest of the night and into the next afternoon. Toport had landed twice in the meantime to allow his reluctant passengers to rest for a few hours, to stretch, and to eat from their meager supplies. Most had been lost to the river with their boats, but the dragon was unapologetic.
The village was nestled close to a bend in a narrow brook, which wound through sloping hills toward a raging river which followed the foot of the mountains to the east. The sky was clear as Toport dove toward the top of a hill nearest the village. The closer he came, the easier he could make out the screams from a handful of villagers who easily spotted his massive form against the afternoon sun.
A thunderous quake accompanied his otherwise graceful landing. The tremor dislodged a pair of barrels from a stack next to a barn. One barrel rolled and the lid cracked in pieces, casting a pile of mushrooms onto the grass. Women and children ducked into their homes while the men shakily swept up any makeshift weapon they could find. Toport lifted his snout and glared at the men who then faced him, although they did not approach within his reach. He then gently opened his talons and allowed the sisters he carried to fall out onto the grass. They dropped to their knees and let loose their lunches, their bodies shaking with a cold sweat. Flying did not suit them.
“Sin!” one of the men shouted. “Stranelle!”
The sisters looked toward the voice and scurried down the hill, stumbling. Toport stood perfectly still as he impassively observed the reunion, like a giant, regal statue made from the purest gold. His long tail wound down the hill opposite the village. The long and sharp spikes which trailed down his spine shuddered slightly as he began to sniff at the air. The stench of wyverns lingered here. He had noticed it as soon as they had come close enough to hear the screaming villagers.
The two young women he had carried back spoke quietly to the other villagers, but Toport paid them little heed as he surveyed the surrounding hills. Just within sight to him from his high vantage point, he noticed three other villages to the north, west, and south. The one to the west looked hazy, a thin trail of smoke rising from the center. Toport huffed, his lips curling to reveal his long, sharp fangs. If the other villages were as poorly armed as this one, then none of the humans could ever hope to defend themselves against wyverns.
“E-excuse me, dragon,” Stranelle’s timid voice called.
Toport spared her a withering glance. “I can smell the beasts. They have been here recently,” he rumbled. “How long ago did they fly west?”
Three of the village men had accompanied Stranelle back to the hill on which Toport stood. Sinelia had rushed toward the houses alongside the others. Toport’s question seemed to make the men glance quizzically at one another.
“How did you know?” the eldest among them replied, shouting up to the dragon who towered over them. “They just came an hour ago. They took the last of our goats and went on to Harit, over that way.”
Toport growled at the man. “Your claim on my kin’s property is unwise,” he snarled. But he did not linger on the matter. He suddenly spread his wings wide and bent his legs, ready to spring into the air. “Gather what supplies you can and make for the village west of here. The vile creatures have attacked it.” His golden eyes surveyed the startled group. Stranelle paled and covered her mouth with a trembling hand. “Be prepared to find no survivors. If the humans there were anything like your ancestors who refused the continued subjugation of the elves, then they fought for their lives. And wyverns do not accept anything but complete victory.”
A buffet of wind struck the villagers as Toport burst into the air with a powerful flap of his wings. The helpless humans sprawled over the grass, unable to keep their footing. Toport soared through the sky and gnashed his teeth as he sped west as quickly as his wings could carry him. Soon, he caught sight of five figures dancing in the air amid the cloud of smoke which rose from the village of Harit. They wove through the inferno they had created, their bronze hides gleaming like metal in the orange glow. Toport’s wings beat faster, but he did not announce his presence until he had nearly reached them. So engrossed in the devastation they had wrought, they did not hear the beat of Toport’s wings until it was far too late.
With a mighty roar, Toport snatched one wyvern from the air with his teeth. They were significantly smaller than he was, and the shrieking wyvern fit nicely in his maw. With a powerful twist of his neck, he threw it into the hills below, where it landed and did not move. His huge talons batted another out of the sky and sent it crashing straight down to the ground. It yelped as the impact snapped its neck. Toport circled around, the momentum from his attack carrying him wide. His golden eyes locked on the remaining wyverns. They howled their rage at the dragon, and then turned tail in three different directions to escape. Only able to pursue one of them, Toport snarled and turned after the largest one. Energy swept out from him as he gave chase, his impressive magic taking the form of a white-hot bolt of lightning. He did not bother to look after the other two wyverns. The bolt of magic danced through the air in the blink of an eye and claimed one of them. A crack reverberated through the low hills when the bolt struck. The third wyvern plummeted to its death.
Wyverns were swift creatures built leaner than the larger, stronger dragons. Though they did not boast powerful magic as dragons did, they did have the ability to breathe fire or ice, dependent upon the beast’s gender. And while dragons had four legs and two wings to hold long, cat-like bodies aloft, wyverns had only their wings and two hind legs. Their bodies were slender and sinewy, their short necks and flat snouts allowing for excellent airborne maneuverability. Toport had difficulty keeping up with the beast he now chased. His magic crackled around him, slowly building up again. The fleeing wyvern ducked and weaved through the air, following the air currents which made Toport’s bulky body drag as he tried to follow. Finally, he snarled and another blinding bolt of energy cut through the air. It seared one of the wyvern’s hind legs as it jerked aside at the last moment to avoid the full brunt of the attack. The blow sent it off-balance and it began to somersault end-over-end, careening down toward the grassy hills. Toport lunged after it.
The wyvern toppled onto the ground, rolling down to the bottom of a hill where it lay dazed. A few moments of silence cleared its mind, only for immense pain to replace its disorientation. Toport fell upon the beast, his front claws crushing both of its wings beneath his full weight. The wyvern howled as bones shattered and leathery skin ripped apart. Toport’s talons sank into the wyvern’s flesh, soon covered in blood.
“Silence your wailing!” he thundered. Saliva dripped from his maw as he leaned down over the smaller creature, his thick neck curved tight and his wings spread wide. Rage made his voice rumble deep. “You will answer my questions if you wish for your death to be swift.”
The wyvern shrieked once more when Toport jerked his talons back and severed the beast’s left wing. The thick appendage twitched grotesquely until Toport impaled the wyvern’s own claws into the shoulder of its other wing. He used such force that it tore through the other side and plunged deep into the ground underneath.
The wyvern could not move.
Wild yellow eyes stared up at Toport when the creature finally ceased its screams of pain. It trembled before this golden bringer of death, who had in his own way promised to end its life swiftly, at least, rather than leave it to die in a few days after bleeding out at the bottom of the hill, staked with its own detached limb.
Toport curled his lips as the wyvern finally quieted. “How many are you?” he growled.
The wyvern’s voice was guttural. Blood seeped out of its maw as it struggled to answer. “The nest…” it rasped. “The nest is a dozen…”
“The humans believe there are hundreds of you,” Toport countered. His snout lowered closer. “You are certain it is only a dozen?”
The wyvern hacked a glob of icy blood from its throat. “Y-Yes!” it hissed. “Twelve we left behind…while we hunted the humans… We fooled the humans with…with lies.”
Toport sneered at the beast. “If you speak the truth, I will return to end your life tonight,” he rumbled low. Panic shot through the wyvern’s yellow eyes when Toport began to withdraw.
“Do not… Do not leave me like this!” the wyvern pleaded. The desperation in its voice made it a high-pitched whine. “I answered! The nest be damned, I answered! You must end me!”
Toport narrowed his golden eyes and lifted his snout, gazing down at the helpless creature. For a moment, Toport considered. But if this wyvern sought retaliation by under-reporting the nest’s numbers, then it would not know such mercy. That human village had been decimated. He doubted any of the villagers had survived the wyverns’ razing. The beast did not deserve his mercy in the first place, but he had made a promise. Toport knew honor, and he would return to this spot regardless of what he found in the old temple’s ruins.
With a curl of his lip as his only answer to his fallen enemy, Toport leapt back into the sky.
Night had fallen upon the village of Harit. The stars twinkled through a lingering haze. A few humans walked the ruins of the village, picking through the remains of buildings for a formal head count. Stranelle had accompanied the villagers, but her knapsack of herbs and healing salves lay untouched next to her in the grass. She wept for the children, for the men and women who had been slaughtered here. The great golden dragon had been right. None survived the wyverns’ fire. As the men picked through the ash and charred remains of collapsed huts, a few embers still glowing faintly in the pitch darkness, Stranelle buried her face in her hands and wiped soot from her cheek.
A shrill yelp suddenly shattered the stillness. Stranelle jerked her head up and stared with wide eyes into the night. She could not tell for certain, but she thought it had come from the north. But all remained quiet afterward for several long minutes before another sound disturbed the silence. A heavy thumping sound, steady like a distant heartbeat, gradually grew louder. After listening for a moment, she jumped to her feet and called out to the others from her village. Moments later, a great shadow passed over the stars and wind buffeted against them. Stranelle put a foot back and leaned her body forward into the gusts so that she would not fall. Finally, the being landed on the grass and stilled.
Stranelle approached alongside her people and gazed up at the dragon. The light from the moons made Toport’s golden scales glitter like precious metal.
“The beasts will bother you no longer,” Toport rumbled. His voice was low, heavy, as if he carried a weight that they could not see. Stranelle thought she saw discolored streaks along his face and neck, but it was just too dark to be certain.
“Thank you…great dragon,” she called up to him. He lowered his head slowly toward her, head turned so that one golden eye could focus intently on her.
“I am Toportanill,” he declared. “I am General of my prince’s army, and I will not abide any danger to my kin or to their belongings.” He exhaled as he lifted his head again so he could survey the group of tired humans. There was something about his demeanor now, something which Stranelle could neither shake nor identify. “Appoint your thieves as liaisons to Haven,” he went on in a harsher tone which jarred the young woman from her thoughts. “We will consider trade, and you will regain your honor through reparations.”
The village elder stepped forward. Stranelle was too stunned to protest or accept. “You have our eternal gratitude for what you have done for us, great Toportanill,” he called. “We will do as you ask.”
Toport scowled as he started to turn away. He then looked back after a pause. “Your village is near the mountains, but far enough away that you do not benefit from the safety they offer.” His wings spread wide. “Gather the men and women, the children, from all of your scattered villages. Come together at the base of the tallest mountain, where the hills come together. In the basin there, you will find a more defensible location, and you will be nearer to Haven, where we can watch over you until you have built a new home.”
The villagers exchanged glances and the elder spoke again. “Your offer is generous,” he said with a touch of awe in his voice. “But we do not have a livelihood out here. We make or catch what we can to feed ourselves, and have nothing to offer you in trade.”
Toport growled impatiently. “Then find something,” he snapped. “You humans found your independence half a century ago, and you are no closer to making a name for yourselves.” He then jumped into the air. He beat his wings heavily to hold his weight in place and turned to look back down at them. “Look to the mountain for your livelihood, if you must!”
And then he soared away. Silence settled over the hills.
Background Music: “Gårdarike” by Tri-Tachyon.
Header Image by: Samuel_Manopo.